Learning the Trees
One of the characteristics of the educational method at Gregory the Great Academy is that learning is experiential. At first glance, one might think that that only means we teach our boys to learn by doing, or that we ask them to reenact historical or literary events to get a feel for the context of the times. Although our boys do engage in cardboard boat races in very loose emulation of the Battle of Lepanto, and they quaff root beer, shoot arrows, cook over a fire, and drub each other in quarter-staff battles during Robin Hood Days, this is not what we mean by experiential. These are delightful activities with no aim other than the fun of the thing.
Experiential learning is the development of a habit of reflection as a student learns by doing. “Habit of reflection” is the operative term. The value of doing is enhanced and fostered when a boy wonders, when he asks questions. Reflection causes a student to be active in his own learning and to desire it because he wants his own questions answered.
Aristotle says that we learn by doing the things we have to learn, even before we can do them. In other words, with the guidance of a master we perform a task before we know about it, then we reflect on what we learned in its performance and we begin to know what still must be learned, and we learn how to make it our own. This works beautifully in subjects such as Rhetoric, but the habit of reflection while doing can be employed in any subject. As opposed to purely academic or didactic learning, a great deal of what boys learn experientially is up to them.
For example, in Natural History the boys read about tree identification, providing them a little knowledge, a little academic learning. Now they must go out to the fields and woods and identify the trees they have been learning. This requires them to reflect about what they learned in a book, to question what they still do not know when they come upon a real tree which may not exactly fit the pattern, and to inquire more deeply into how to find out what it is. They discover the answer by keenly observing, by reading, and by consulting with each other and with their teacher. There is happiness, often joy, in this way of learning, and we never forget that the end of any learning, of any doing, is happiness both here and in eternity.